I wear two hats when I write this blog of mine. First and foremost, I manage a small charity in a small Scottish town called Dumfries. Ours is a front door that opens onto the darker corners of the crumbling world that is Britain 2015. We hand out 5000 emergency food parcels a year in a town that is home to 50,000 souls. Then, as you can see from all of the book covers above, I am also a thriller writer. If you enjoy the blog, you might just enjoy the books. The link below takes you to the whole library in the Kindle store. They can be had for a couple of quid each.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Fantasy and nightmare



I am an author. And as an author I certainly live up to a few stereotypes. I’m broke. I smoke like a chimney. And I’m always searching for new places. For in a novel, places are the settings and the backdrops. They frame the mood and set the rhythm. A good novel is hard to come by without good places to set it off. I have always found that places never cease to be surprising. All too often they can be a spirit crushing anti climax. Like the Sphinx in Cairo or Stonehenge. But sometimes they surpass your every expectation; be it good or be it bad. You expect Auschwitz to be awful, but when you meet it face to face, it transcends every nightmare you have ever had. You expect the Taj Mahal to be pretty good, but its improbable perfection stops you dead. You worry that The Statue of Liberty might be tacky, only to find it towering and inspiring.

As an author, I seek places that wear their memories like a cloak. Places that bear the footprints of history. Places of echoes and ghosts. Find the place, and the stories will find themselves. Yet in these depressed times, many such places are way beyond my pay grade. So now is time to look to Credit Crunch travel, a technique which is available to the quarter of us who still smoke. European law allows us to buy 170 packets of duty free fags from a fellow EU country. Buy them in Luxembourg and you can save £3 a pack. 170 x 3 = £510. So there is the budget. A chance to find new places and turn a profit care of Great Britain Plc’s draconian tobacco duty.

So we start with Ryan Air. Well of course we do. Brussels for £60 return. Next a hire car; £70 for two days. And here is a Credit Crunch Travel tip to ponder on. A hire car can double up as a hotel room. The upside is the joy of eating up the dark miles of the night with no need to chase the clock. The downside is that you snatch sleep in two hour busts and wake up stiff and cranky. Tip number three and we will begin. Choose the right audiobook to keep you company through the wee small hours. I have gone for ‘Absolute Fiends’ by John Le Carre. Free at the point of delivery from the local library. So press ‘play’ and go.

5.30pm. Two hours to Luxembourg and a stop at ‘Route 66’ off junction 1 of the E42. Google it. They do Camel at £2.60 a pack.

9.30pm. Four hours of roaring autobahns and floodlit industrial towns. Mega factory after mega factory, all lit up by arc lights to reveal their epic scale. Chimneys still make smoke and containers filled with goods made to last still roll out of the loading bays. For here is a place where they still make and export stuff. More than anyone else in the world in fact. It’s called heavy industry. We used to do it once. I’ve had half an hour of side roads past Kaiserslauten. And now I’m stopped at a timbered Rasthaus complete with log burner, sausage with cabbage pickled five different ways, and accordion based Leiderhosen musak. But no customers. A Credit Crunch Friday night in the land where they still make stuff.

4.20am. Three hours sleep at a service station south of Stuttgart. If we built something like this at home there would be full page features about it. Three levels reached by spiral staircases and home to orchards of living trees interspersed with tables. The place gleams from constant cleaning. No doubt the local train is never, ever late.

9.00am. Sometimes you get lucky, and I just did. I was lucky on several different levels, but timing most of all. By six thirty, the long black night of thundering trucks at last started to fade to light. The autobahn gave way to smaller, winding roads edged with hard packed snow. And out of the multicoloured miracle of the dawn came a scene straight from ‘Lord of the Rings’. Towering ice clad peaks and mist in the valley and mirror lakes and villages from chocolate boxes.

By seven I was looking up at what I had driven all night to see. Mad King Ludwig’s fairytale Neuschwansten castle. And the reality completely outdid the pictures. Below the Schloss is the village of Hohenswangau, a squeaky clean cluster of uber-kitch hotels, gift shops and vast car parks to accommodate the visiting throngs. But at 7.00 a.m. on a crystal cold November morning, there was no throng to be seen. In fact there was nobody at all to be seen. Only me. It’s a stiff half hour walk up the hill to where the castle perches high on its rock. Pine trees and cathedral stillness and then the kind of view that all but brings tears to your eyes. And the castle itself. It’s Disneyland built many years before Walt so much as picked up a felt tip. Ludwig was a shy man who never learnt how to be part of a crowd. Instead he hid from an increasingly frightening and modern world in his very old Alpine fantasy and he built castles to match his dreams. Imagine the faces of the engineers when he told them what he wanted. Actually chaps, I want a castle like this on that rock up there. First they must have taken a long gulp of cold air. Then they got on and did it. Much like the service station south of Stuttgart. It wasn’t very long before he owed the State of Bavaria an eye watering 21 million Marks, and he showed no signs of reining in his spending. The politicians in Munich decided that enough was enough and they found some tame doctors to declare him insane. He was spending far, far too much treasure on his far fetched delusions. If only the Reichstag Senate had followed a similar course in 1933 or the U.S. Senate in 2003. A year later Ludwig was found mysteriously dead in a lake. But what a legacy!

By the time I got back down to the village hundreds of Japanese cameras were emerging from coaches and the spell was broken. Only Credit Crunch travellers who double up hire cars for hotel rooms arrive at 7 am on a November morning and have the place all to themselves. Like I said. Timing.

3.00pm The journey from fairytale to nightmare is 100 kilometres long. A drive of an hour and a half that takes you through a town called Landsberg where once upon a time a prisoner called Adolf wrote a book called ‘Mein Kampf’. It is a pretty drive to a rather ordinary little town with a truly extraordinary name.

A town called Dachau.

Holywood has given us the impression that Hitler’s camps were buried deep in grim wilderness. Not so Dachau. It is about half a mile from the town centre and ringed with houses easily old enough to have been there in 1933. No big secret then. In fact it was opened with some fanfare and the local papers ran the story on their front pages. The Germans were impressed with the way it went about its business. Properly hard time for the scum of the earth. Up at 4am. 12 hours of hard labour. Basic food. Rules which demanded that dormitory blocks shone to perfection. Every bed sheet had to be lined up just so. Every spoon in every locker had to be stored just so. When Dachau opened its doors for business, 25% of Germans were unemployed and starving. They wanted the men responsible to be brought to account. They wanted them spending their days shovelling sand and snow. Hitler wanted a place that could completely break a man’s spirit in less than a year. A place that so bad that nobody but nobody would re-offend. So why keep such a place a secret? They didn’t. Instead they allocated 2000 cons to daily gardening duty to keep the camp looking nice for visitors. Surprisingly enough, less than 500 prisoners died in the first six years which is a scary number in 2008, but hardy a drop in the bucket back then. Maybe you might be starting to feel just a tad uncomfortable here? For if our gallant government, who aspire to lock us away for seven weeks without charge, were to open a place like Dachau for drug dealers and gang members and paedophiles, then or course our gallant tabloid press would no doubt cheer them to the rafters.

The onset of war gave the chance for the lunatics to take over the asylum in Dachau and by the time ashen faced Americans arrived, the number of dead was too great to count. So if we want to get a feel of how the Nazi madness started, then Dachau is as good a place as any to start. And the fact that European Human Rights legislation is the main reason that our gallant government would find it impossible to open such an obvious vote winner today shows that our EU neighbours have longer and better memories than ours. And if we want to find real Bavarian lunatics, then Hitler and his appalling cronies seem to be much more the genuine article than poor old King Ludwig. Give me fairytale over nightmare any time. Oh, and by the way. Unlike at Auschwitz the birds DO sing. They are crows. They go ‘Kaw…kaw…kaw…’

9.30pm. A £25 a night hotel on the banks of the Rhine. A mixed grill, a few beers and a 5am start for the plane home. Thinking time. Digesting time. And it occurs that everything is linked. The local council wants a service station complete with split level indoor orchards. OK. We can do that. A mad king wants a fantasy castle high up on an Alpine rock. OK. We can do that. A mad Fuhrer wants a place that can break a man into a million pieces in less than a year. OK. We can do that. It’s the Vurpsrung durst technik mind set. If you’re going to do a job….

And so to the bill. My 48 hours have run to about £250 all in. A profit then. I have driven 1000 miles and when I go to sleep it will be with pictures of one impossibly beautiful castle and a quarter of a million faces of men who could have used some Human Rights legislation to contain the lunacy before it got out of hand.

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